Sunday, June 13, 2010

Repentance and Beauty

Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.
- Fr. Pavel Florensky

The quote above has had, for some reason, a significant impact on my life. I read it only recently on Father Stephen’s blog Glory to God for All Things and somehow it brought a new element of lightness and joy into my life. It made the idea of repentance as turning towards God and the idea of God as light much clearer to me. It is funny how sometimes the most esoteric statements can be the most helpful.

Now I have started to wonder whether the statement works in reverse: whether all that is beautiful in a person is turned towards God. Some Christian apologetics seem to believe so. In his book Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton describes all good and pleasurable things in this world as treasures rescued from the shipwreck that was the Fall. In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the last novel in the Narnia series, Aslan tells Emeth that all the service he had done to Tash, Aslan accounts as service done to himself.

I’ve been testing this against situations I encounter and so far the theory has held water. In some mysterious way it seems to explain how the same action in one situation is “righteous” and “unrighteous” in another. A few examples regarding fasting:

• Fasting on Holy Friday is a beautiful act of compassion and participation. Feasting on Pascha is a beautiful act of celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. Feasting on Holy Friday – not so beautiful. Fasting on Pascha – not so beautiful (at least in my opinion, and if I read my Bible correctly, not in Christ’s opinion either).

• Fasting as a sign of obedience and respect – a beautiful act. Fasting with a “holier than though attitude” – not so beautiful.

• Breaking the fast even if you desire to keep it to accommodate a visitor on the Atkins diet – a beautiful act? Inviting you Atkins-following friend always on Fridays so that you have an excuse not to fast-not so beautiful.

Seems to work here? How about other areas of life, attending services for example?

• If a parent skips services to attend to his or her child (or spouse, or parent, or neighbor…) who needs attention, I see that as a beautiful act of parenthood and could see that being turning simultaneously towards God and your neighbor. Always skipping services even to stay home with your family, irrespective of what the surrounding situation is – not so beautiful.

I still need to do more thinking about this, but this interpretation would seems shed light to the grey areas in our lives where we ,actually do spend most of our time. It might also give guidance on how to put into action St. Paul’s words about the lawfulness and profitability of things.

All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. - 1 Corinthians 6:12

Do I find this compelling because I find it easier to recognize what is beautiful rather than what is “right”? Or that, ultimately, it is more important that an act is beautiful rather than right or just in our eyes?

Friday, June 4, 2010

I Guess It Depends on What You Are Used To

 An Orthodox Church on any given Sunday 
This one is St. Seraphim's Cathedral in Dallas, Texas

A colleague was describing a wedding she will be attending soon. The bride and groom have placed very strict limitations on the person officiating the ceremony. One of the stipulations was that the ceremony should not last more than 15 minutes "because I guess the people will be standing throughout the ceremony".

I managed not to say anything.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

We Have Found the True Faith

This past Sunday, a dear friend of mine was chrismated, that is received into the Orthodox Church. His journey to Orthodoxy has been a deliberate and thorough examination of the differences between the Orthodox faith and Catholicism, which is the tradition he grew up in.

Often, those not actively participating any organized form of Christianity are put off by the divisions within the different Christian denominations. Two issues seem to come up repeatedly:
- Isn't it the same God that is worshipped by all Christians? Why all these different denominations? Isn't one church as good as the other?
- Why it is necessary to participate in organized religion at all? Doesn't everyone  have their own personal relationship with God? What do you need the church for? Why isn't praying at home by myself enough?

These are good questions and really go to the heart of what it means to become a member of any particular church. Why was it necessary for Ryan to leave the Catholic Church in which he was brought up and become an 'Orthodox' Christian? Why did I find very little that to me seemed real or appealing as I grew up attending, once in a while, the Lutheran Church, and yet found something very compelling in the Orthodox Church? Ryan has a cute (sorry, Ryan) allegory on his blog My Odyssey: A Journey East  about why he felt he needed to attend the Orthod Church. Basically, the crux is that John Lennon is great but he is even more amazing within the context of The Beatles. He speaks of the fullness of faith that has been retained in the Orthodox Church. It is this same fullness that I experienced when I first started attending Orthodox Liturgy. It is fullness both of theology and of worship. Another friend-another Ryan-tells a similar story but from an evangelical perspective on his blog Gradually Brightened.

As part of each Sunday's Liturgy we sing, "we have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true Faith." As Father Stephen emphasizes in his blog post We Have Seen, that "Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true)." We sing these words with joy, gratitude and humility instead of as fighting words to be hurled like spears at Christians of other denominations. At each vesper service we also sing: "Preserve, oh God, the Holy Orthodox Faith of Orthodox Christian unto the ages of ages." Having this as part of the service seems to me infinitely wise. It is the recognition by the Church Fathers that even though the Church is established by Christ and handed down to us from the apostles through our bishops in direct succession, it still exists within the fallen world and is threatened by the same corruption as everything else. So we pray each night for God to preserve this treasure that is the Liturgy and the sacraments-the outward manifestations of the True Faith that was revealed over 2000 years ago.

Secondly, the church was established to guide us on how to create a "right" relationships with God and with each other. Therefore it is extremely important what each church's teachings are on these issues. As members of a Christian church we become ambassadors of God' Kingdom for others. How each church defines the goal of our lives has huge implications on our day-to-day life. According to the Orthodox Church, it is not the goal of our lives to become "good people" in worldly terms. Neither is it to save the world  (Christ already did that). The goal is to turn towards God, to have a change of heart, to become holy, to become Christ-like. And until this happens all the social programs we develop, all social utopias we conceive are temporary, of this world. (And can easily be destroyed by a small group of hell-bent individuals). This is of course not an excuse for individuals to ignore what happens in the world around them. (Here I am going to use the old grad student cop-out: "but that is beyond the scope of this blog post". But, naturally Father Stephen has interesting things to say).

The second question regarding the need for organized religion gets a little bit more complicated, I think, because the answer would have to be Yes and No. Some lucky individuals, I guess, feel God's presence so strongly all the time that they need no help.  But I believe those people are few and far between. Even the saints often went through years, even decades, when they felt abandoned by the Holy Spirit. It is the teachings of the Church Fathers, the Tradition of the Church and the community of saints that help us over these dry spells. And when you feel too weak even to pray, you can be sure that there are others who are praying on your behalf. So, even if some lucky individuals truly do not need the Church (which I in fact doubt) there are a multitude of others who not only need the Church but they also need others to participate in that same church. It was for ALL that the Church was established.

It is this Church that makes the eucharistic sacrifice (communion) each Sunday "on behalf of all and for all", that Ryan was received into. I was delighted and honored but also humbled to become Ryan's godmother at his Chrismation.  But, as a godparent, especially to an adult, what can I bring to the table? His journey to the Orthodox Church was a lot more thorough and deliberate than mine was. I am also not a church historian or a theologian. (Luckily his godfather, Stephen, more than makes up for my ignorance in this area).  What do I have that I can impart of this treasure that is Orthodoxy? The only things I can think of is sharing my relatively extensive collection of Orthodx literature and bringing baked goods when appropriate. But most importantly, perhaps, I can share the joy that I feel about what I know about our God, our faith and our church.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I Love You, Guardian Angel

When I put Sasha to sleep at night, I usually lie down next to him and as part of the evening "ritual" I say a prayer. Recently Sasha has started whispering his own prayer while I recite mine.

It goes like this: "I love you, Mommy. I love you, Guardian Angel. I love you, Mommy. I love you, Guardian Angel. I love you, Mommy. I love you, Guardian Angel..."

Perhaps this prayer cannot be found in any Orthodox prayer books, but I think it is just fine for now!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who is this...

...and what did they do with my son?

Sasha does really well in school, except in writing. It's not that he doesn't have things to say (that is NEVER a problem). It's his handwriting. It is totally illegible. Or was until this week. I assumed that it would improve during the year little by little until it would turn into something tolerable. I was so wrong!

The homework from last week:

The homework from this week:

What happened?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saved by Paper

While I was recuperating from minor surgery I had to find something to do at home with my son, Sasha, that didn't involve racing, freeze tag, pillow fights or generally climbing on mommy.  Above are the results.

These are relatively easy to make even with a 6-year-old's hands and patience. Here is the link.

I don't know how we survived before the internet!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A conversation

I will need to have some minor surgery. Nothing serious, just a hassle. Before the surgery I had the following conversation with my doctor:

Doctor: It will require a small incision in your stomach area.

Me: OK.

Doctor: It will leave a scar.

Me: OK.

Doctor: It will be permanent.

Me: OK.

Doctor: You are not American, are you?

Make of it what you will.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Practical Arts in the Modern Age

A friend from church homeschools all her 3 children. (She has wonderful children, but still, I don't know how she does it.) There is a "practical arts" requirement in the home schooling curriculum that her children are enrolled in. So we got to talking about what it means in this day and age. She told how she was teaching his son online banking. That is certainly a big change from building bird houses and ironing and sewing aprons like we did when we were in school.

A few days later I showed my son, Sasha, my blog. An hour later he came to tell me he wants his own blog. I thought, aha, a teachable moment, learning by doing, etc...Here is the result: Sasha, Boy in School. Sasha is truly the creator and writer of this blog. He chose the photo, the colors and dictated what to write. I am merely the technical producer (and will be working towards handing that job over soon as well).

So, if the "building trains" career falls through he can always fall back on blogging.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Earthen Vessels

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.
2 Corinthians 4:7

This Sunday our new bishop will be installed. I sing in the choir and earlier this week as we rehearsed for the service I was reminded by St. Paul's words. We have some very good musicians among us but most of us are just "well-meaning amaterurs". And no matter what our level, we all have our own stumbling blocks, be it language issues, becoming frazzled, pitch problems, or (my personal favorite) standing like a deer in headlights with no clue what we are supposed to be doing. When we rehearse there is a point when it seems that no way will we manage to turn our efforts into music.  But some how it ends up coming together for the service (most of the time). Orhodox services rely heavily on the choir and despite all of our individual weaknesses and stumbling blocks, people keep showing up. Sometimes because of, sometimes despite of, and sometimes irrespective of our singing. No room for either pride or self-flagellation. Earthen Vessels.

As I was thinking about this topic, our priest send us this email:

This e-mail was sparked by the following comment in today's "daily devotion" on the Portland, Maine, TV station, Channel 6:

"We could take a cue from Orthodoxy, whose priests stand with their backs to their congregation, leading a liturgy that is neither clever nor impassioned, but simply beautiful, like stone smoothed by centuries of rhythmic tides. It's an austere ritual, in the sense of - there's nothing new here; it's sublime, in the sense of - creating a clearer view into Heaven. The priest can be any priest. Who he is, what he looks like, how he speaks, and what he thinks matter little. He hasn't written the service that he officiates. It isn't about him or his prowess. He's an interchangeable functionary draped in brocaded robes, obscured by incense, and, as such, never points to himself, a flawed human, pointing ever and only to the Perfection of the Mysterious Divine. That is the role of every priest or preacher - invisibility, while making God seen."

While I certainly believe that having a good priest makes a huge difference for the parish (and Father Christopher is the best!) it is true that the services minimize the significance of the individual over the priestly role. Recognition of our nature as earthen vessels?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Slaying Tiny Dragons

When I leave the house for the first time in the morning, I kiss the icon of St. George and ask his help for slaying dragons. I realize that the dragons I face are minuscule compared to what many people have to deal with every day. However, that small gesture reminds me that we are representatives of God's Kingdom here and it helps me at times (but, alas, not often enough) to bite my tongue, swallow those words, sway my hand, extend myself...whatever the situation calls for. It reminds me that it does matter what I do and how I behave within my small sphere of influence.

Most of us live most of our lives with the realm of  the "small". In his blogpost Why Small Things Matter Father Stephen writes beautifully (as always) on the significance of small things. If you are not familiar with his blog "Glory to God for All Things" I strongly recommend it. He always has something interesting and profound to say, and in a manner which seems to be infused with humility and love. His posts have helped me countless of times as I try to slay, over and over again, the seemingly tiny but persistent dragons of laziness, despondency, lack of hope, lack of faith and fear.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gluten Free Baking: Why Do My Cookies Look Like Hamburger Meat?

Lookers these cookies are not, but they are full of chocolatey and peanutty goodness!

A friend from church believes she might be gluten-intolerant so in an effort to keep her included I am experimenting with gluten-free recipes. Baking Bites' Peanutbutter and Chocolate Cookies are totally flourless, so no problem there. I have to say I was skeptical, but these turned out wonderfully flavorful!

Getting decent photos on the other hand, was not so simple. No matter which angle, which distance I used, the cookies looked like unappetizing blobs (Photo I) or more like hamburger patties (Photo II). I have to admit I rather like the play of color and textures in Photo III, even though the cookies themselves end up playing 2nd and 3rd fiddle to other elements.

So much to learn...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How many women does it take to do a root canal?

Apparently 4, at least when it comes to my son Sasha: myself and 2 nurses (or dental equivalents) to hold his legs, hands and head, and 1 dentist to work on the actual tooth.

After 1.5 hours of struggle (with screams like: "I lied, I lied, my tooth wasn't hurting...It stopped hurting at 11:15." resounding through the dental office) to complete one procedure that should have taken 30 minutes, the dentist kindly asked us not to come back. And this was already the second dentist who threw us out. So the next time he will have dental work done under general anesthesia in a hospital. You'd better start brushing your teeth more carefully, buddy!

I can't really blame him, though. He has his parents' genes when it comes to his dental material. And the water running into your throat during drilling does feel yucky and scary.

He will grow out of it.  Right?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flourishing Where Planted

I am a single (and proud) mom of a six-year-old son, Sasha. We live in Brooklyn, NY, with my mom. Central to my life also is that I was baptized in the Orthodox Church in 2001. 

Being a single mom is not what I envisioned for my life. This blog will be a chronicle of my efforts to flourish where I have been planted. Hopefully I will find things to write about that are of interest or amusement to others beyond just my immediate family as I balance motherhood, working full-time and serving the church to the best of my ability. The content will depend on what life sends my way, but I am pretty sure the following topics will come up:

  • Redeeming "churchladyship"
  • Surviving mommyhood
  • Beware: Restricted Cooking Area (keeping the fasts, gluten-free baking, weight-management)
  • Growing in Faith
I'm sure I will end up reporting a whole slew of disasters as I overreach, overcommit, and underestimate. Regardless, this blog will give me the opportunity delve into the world of blogging and food photography, both areas where I am a complete novice.

It might take me a while before I can get anything interesting posted-excess time is not something I have much of-but perhaps occasionally there will be something here you find amusing. In the mean time, may God bless you and have mercy on us!

Christ is Risen! Indeed he is Risen!